My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“In the rotting and inadequate sewers, human excrement mixed with refuse from the slaughterhouses and knacker’s yards and waste from the tanneries and factories. Every day it drained into the Thames. it was not long before the river itself became the great cesspool of the city. At low tide the effluvium clung to the pillars of bridges or piled itself into stinking mudbanks and fermented. London, the largest metropolis in the world, was poisoning itself. That was the consensus reached by doctors and scientists as the century passed its midpoint. As the filth pooled and putrefied in local sewers many of which were hardly more than open ditches it exhaled highly poisonous gases.”
First, setting. Next, opinion.
It is rare – not impossible – but rare to discover after reading just the one book that you may have found another favourite author to add to your coterie. That happened with Clare Clark, author of The Great Stink, as well as other novels in the historical genre that I have yet to get my hands on and sink my teeth into.
Let me begin with a warning: this is not a book for someone with a weak stomach. Expect to come across gruesome, vile, downright revolting, in-depth descriptions of Victorian London’s notorious underground sewer which was responsible for its reputation as the filthiest city in the world in the mid 1800s. An aside: The great stink of London was so all-pervasive that even distinguished medical professionals attributed the frequent outbreaks of cholera and dysentery to the miasma which they believed was caused by the noxious fumes emanating from the river Thames. This is before Joseph Lister came along and established the link between poor sanitation and infection.
Back to the book though – this was one of those books people are so fond of calling, “unputdownable”. Admittedly, it begins slowly and the buildup of characters is gradual. However, I encourage you to persevere because there is a method to the madness. Clark has a deft and steady hand in the fine outlining of plot, character definition, and narrative deconstruction. This is a squalid but intriguing read resplendent with terrific atmospheric setting and painstaking detailing – be it the myriad ways she describes the infamous labyrinth of the sewer, to a careful consideration of what can be understood today as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or even getting under the skin of the characters – be it the toshers (scavengers), charlatans, or the educated literates.
This novel isn’t lazy. It’s wonderfully well-researched and a little brave too, I think, for it does not shy away from exposing the rotting underbellies of both places and people alike. This isn’t a tumble of pigs in shit (pun inevitable) or a glorious romp through gratuitous squalor – it is very real. And this is why it returns to me again and again – the maturity. The stayed hand. The awareness of walking a tightrope that allows the reader a glimpse into a time and place quite unimaginable, yet not unthinkable.
A consummate and distinguished storyteller, Clare Clark has the words. She has the best words. But what she also possesses is the experience, maturity, and patience to deliver a story so rich in texture, and acutely sensitised to the era in which it is set. Here is an example of her lyricism when describing the festering, putrid river: “(a) breeze had got up. It played down the length of the river so that the water was chased into little overlapping waves. As the moon slid out from behind a shawl of cloud, casting a pale silver light on the water, they glistened and squirmed. A gigantic black sea monster, Rose thought, that was the Thames, slithering through the city’s ditch towards its lair beneath the open sea. A grotesque beast that devoured and half-digested the waste of the largest city in the world, its open maw ceaselessly swallowing its rotten vegetation, its excrement, its dead. Its appetite was voracious, indiscriminate; its tentacles stretching even into the city’s bowels to lick at their squalid deposits.”
Well. This is some good shit.